James Billington (1890 - ?) was the sixteenth Governor-General of the Confederation of North America, serving from September 1950 to February 1953. He was the first Negro to become governor-general, and the fifth man to succeed to the office following the resignation or death of his predecessor.
Early Life and Political Career
Billington was the heir to a successful North American political dynasty. His paternal grandfather was the first Negro to be elected to the Grand Council from the Northern Confederation, and his maternal grandfather served as Minister of Finance in the government of Southern Vandalia. His father, Ferdinand Billington, was a lawyer who was a personal friend of Owen Galloway, and worked for North American Motors for the last ten years of his life.
Billington had no interest in the Negro rights movement led by Howard Washburne, describing the League for Brotherhood in 1921 as "misguided, and led by Pied Pipers who cannot even find the river." Billington was the youngest member of the N.C.'s Assembly at the time, and was quickly put forward by the People's Coalition as a moderate alternative to Washburne's supporters in the Liberal Party.
Billington won a Grand Council seat in the 1933 elections, one of fifteen Coalitionists to win in the N.C. that year, and one of ten Negroes to be elected. During his first term in the Council, he gained a reputation as a competent but not outstanding legislator. On the other hand, his disinterest in racial issues made him popular among white members of the Burgoyne political establishment, such as Councilman Jasper Alcott of Indiana, whom Sobel describes as "a noted opponent of racial mixing." Jerome O'Brian of the Burgoyne Herald credited Billington's refusal to discuss racial issues with reassuring white voters that they had nothing to fear from Negro politicians, writing, "More than any other person, Billington prepared the way for color-blindness in the C.N.A."
In response to the political crisis following the death of Governor-General Henderson Dewey in 1929, the Grand Council passed the Reform Bill of 1936, creating the office of Council President to serve as the designated successor to the governor-general. In the campaign for the 1938 Grand Council elections, Coalitionist leader Bruce Hogg of Northern Vandalia pledged to support Billington as Council President. Jeffrey Martin of the New York Herald credited Hogg's choice of Billington with gaining the Coalition eleven of Southern Vandalia's fifteen seats, and thus its two-seat Council majority. Martin's colleague Margaret Salmon wrote that "Billington would have been selected no matter what his race, but the fact of his blackness certainly boosted the Hogg candidacy."
As Council President, Billington sat in on Cabinet meetings, toured the C.N.A., and after the outbreak of the Global War in October 1939 was named to head Hogg's Commission on the Defense Effort. Although Hogg initially opposed North American involvement in the war, the unexpected success of the Germans led him to change his mind, and also led to a change in public opinion in the country. Beginning in February 1940, Hogg began clandestinely supplying arms to Great Britain. In July he met with members of the Liberal opposition to seek their support for further aid, and on 17 July he announced the formation of a "unity government" that included Douglas Watson, Hugh Devenny, and other Liberal leaders.
At a Cabinet meeting on 18 November 1942, it was agreed that neither party would hold a national convention, and that candidates for the Grand Council would run unpledged. The winning party would choose the governor-general, but the unity government would remain in place. In the 1943 Grand Council elections, the Coalitionists won an 84-seat majority, and Hogg and Billington retained their offices. Five years later, the same arrangement was made for the 1948 Grand Council elections, which the Coalition again won, and Billington was again chosen as Council President.
Billington maintained his father's friendship with Owen Galloway, and was chosen to give the eulogy at Galloway's funeral in 1948. Now in his late 50's, Billington began to plan to retire from the Grand Council in 1953 and become general counsel for the Galloway interests.
The end of the Global War in December 1948 led to a debate in the C.N.A. about Hogg's failure to prevent the war. Billington defended Hogg, saying, "The peace crusade was North American in inspiration. Owen Galloway's efforts in the cause of peace, supported at all times by Governor-General Hogg, were only a token of his massive efforts to keep the peace. When the whole story is known, Mr. Hogg will be recognized as the peacemaker he was and is today." Councilman Richard Mason of the Southern Confederation responded by proposing a massive program of foreign aid, which became known as the Mason Doctrine. Mason's proposal won instant approval throughout the C.N.A., and made him the leader of the Liberals.
The unity government was disbanded in November 1949, and partisan politics resumed in the C.N.A. Perry Jay became the new Minister of Home Affairs, and the leading figure in the Cabinet. Hogg was planning to resign in Jay's favor, but before he could do so, he suffered a severe stroke on the evening of 16 September 1950, and died within hours. As Council President, Billington became the new governor-general.
Billington's first weeks in office were difficult, due to the circumstances of his elevation. However, he had a far more vital presence than Hogg, was a better speaker, and possessed a delicate sense of humor that came over well on vitavision. In his inaugural address, he pledged to continue Hogg's work, including "the search for peace" and "the reconstruction of a shattered world"; spoke of a need for "a carefully organized program for the agricultural sector"; and concluded with an analysis of economic affairs in general. Although he was privately nervous, the speech came off well, and the feared reaction among white North Americans to Billington's elevation did not develop. Despite his disappointment, Jay cooperated with Billington, and helped to ease his transition.
Billington had always been unpopular with North American radicals, especially the remnants of the League for Brotherhood, who condemned him as "a racial traitor". His defense of Hogg's pre-war policies gained him the opposition of the newly-formed Reconciliation Committee of One Hundred Million, and his support for increased defense spending was opposed by pacifists who supported Mason. Sobel notes that while there are some who believe that Billington's political problems were due to his race, most of his opponents would have attacked any leader who stood for the programs he supported.
Late in 1952, Jay resigned from the Cabinet and announced that he would challenge Billington at the Coalition's upcoming national convention. He opposed Billington's arms program and his ending of agricultural subsidies, and he thought more funds should be appropriated for the Mason Program. Billington won the nomination, but the People's Coalition remained bitterly divided between his supporters and Jay's. Mason was nominated by the Liberals at their convention, and both candidates ran forceful campaigns. War guilt was the major issue of the 1953 Grand Council elections, with Mason hammering away at Billington on the topic. Such was the state of the national mood that Mason won an easy victory, gaining an 82-seat majority in the Grand Council.
Sobel states that there was no evidence that Mason used or intended to use racial prejudice as a political tool, and that Billington himself did not believe he did so. He quotes James Lawrey, who wrote, "Billington had many detractors in 1953, but the nation could be proud of the way he was attacked. These people hated his programs, not his skin. Even in defeat, Billington was able to prove a point. In its public life at least, the C.N.A. had become color-blind."
Billington retired from politics after his defeat, and was soon named president of North American Motors. He also began writing his memoirs, publishing the first volume, At the Helm, in 1960.
Sobel's sources for the life and career of James Billington include Billington's Memoirs: Vol. 1. At the Helm (New York, 1960); as well as Alcott's Autobiography (New York, 1939); Charles Simonson's The Oak Has Fallen: Hogg's Last Stand (New York, 1952); Jay's The Way It Happened: The Transition of Power in 1950 (New York, 1958); Frank Rusk's A Statistical Analysis of the 1953 C.N.A. Elections (New York, 1958); Lawrey's From the Fifth: Inside the Council (New York, 1959); and Arthur Heide's The Emergence of James Billington (New York, 1960).
This was the Featured Article for the week of 24 February 2013.
|Governors-General of the C.N.A.|
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